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Playing with Your Crew

the crew

One night last week while playing Tiny Tina’s new Borderlands 2 DLC, I asked my sister and a friend what I should blog about next. They suggested that my next topic should be our communal gaming. Why not? We have put in more effort to playing as a team lately and with my boys away at camp for a month, this seems the perfect time to review what team gaming means to me and to my friends.

As I have mentioned in the past, until recently, I have been concentrating on single player games a majority of the time. When my boys are asleep and I play whatever I like, this is what I did most often. I admit, I did play quite a bit of Call of Duty multiplayer but those were all deathmatch-style competitions as opposed to the coop games I am currently favoring. My team currently consists of my sister, an avid gamer to say the least, her daughter who is no lightweight by any measure, and a longtime friend of theirs who knows his way around COD like the best of them.

This team has been playing mainly Fuse and the two Borderlands games lately and having a great time. There is nothing quite like the comfort and ease of playing with regulars. I equate it to a bowling league or local softball team where everyone know everyone and the depth of the relationships only adds to the sense of team and camaraderie. My sister and her friend have been playing together for a long time and I am actually the new kid to the group. Their relationship is the kind of success story that is the antithesis of the irritating and often abusive contact that one frequently encounters when playing with unfiltered opponents online. The fact they became actual friends who spend time together offline — from their online contact is really nice to see, but also probably rare as the PlayStation Gran Turismo racer champions who get a chance to sit behind the wheel of a real race car. But it goes to show that just as some of those online drivers end up being quite good at driving real race cars, sometimes you can make a genuine friend from online gaming.

Online, the world of prejudice and stereotypes is as skewed and muted as often as it is amplified.  Just as some players say things in multiplayer games that they would never say to someone’s face, others let go of the differences between us physically and rely instead on the quality of the interaction with another person to determine whom they wish to play with again. Idealistic? Maybe a bit, but true nonetheless.

If you think this dynamic is only true in the gaming world, you’re wrong.

Finally accepting a friend’s offer to meet for drinks with a group of local regulars I asked him why he continued the efforts to assemble at this local bar. To paraphrase his answer, he said that it was obvious — to get a group of friends together who could disconnect from their daily responsibilities, unwind a bit and share some stories. Not one of these adult men were gamers but it seemed that they all knew about “joining a party” to “chat”. I am not trying to convince anyone with the benefits or shortcomings of the social aspects of multiplayer gaming, they seem self-explanatory and to those who do not play games, they seems equally distant and unimportant as the games. To those who use these technologies, the interaction between players, both inside and outside of the game themselves, is a integral element and will only increase as the new versions of the game consoles are sold later this year and bring new levels of potential player interaction with the integrated Kinect and picture-in-picture apps for example.

Longest Day of the Year

hammock view 1000

Summer solstice. End of the school year. A time of transition. Today is the longest day of the year and marks the start of a change from the daily pattern that we follow during the school year to the less structured schedule of summer. It also marks an important change for my gaming habits and probably for many of you as well. My three sons all leave for sleepaway camp for a month.

The next month is full of outdoor activity, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and trying new things. They swim in the pool and the lake, work in the wood shop (their favorite) and play various sports. The do not play any video games at all. A complete break. Not even games in their iPods.

Their departure means significant changes for our household as well. It’s quiet. Things stay clean and organized. It’s weird. Most parents look forward to having a break from their kids. You are not responsible for anyone but yourself. You can do what you like with your time. Yes, it’s great – for a very short time. You may think it strange, but I miss them almost immediately. I don’t miss the arguing and fighting or the significant mess they leave everywhere, that is for sure, but a large part of my enjoyment of gaming comes with sharing it with my kids.  Seeing the experiences through their eyes adds dimension and increases the fun. Sure, there are games that are meant for adults and I play those by myself or with adults, but the majority of games are intended for wide audiences and the overall experience is enhanced by the variety of reactions from the players of different ages.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a year or two ago from the hammock in my back yard. It is of a great sycamore tree that my boys referred to as the “Y Tree” due to its overall shape. This tree was very large. It had a trunk about five feet wide and rose to about seventy feet. It was the largest tree on my property and dwarfed all others around it. It is gone now. The strong winds of Superstorm Sandy caused a crack where the trunk divided and the tree experts said it was not wise to try to save it. As they took it down, the foreman showed me the crack and revealed that water had been seeping into the division for a long time and had rotted out the center of the tree. The storm had just sped up the process and really did us a favor by revealing the weakness.

Needless to say, the removal of the tree has completely changed the back yard. Where once there was mostly shade, now there is bright sun. The trees that surround the hole left by the missing branches will eventually start to extend and fill in the gap, but for now the most prominent element is what is missing.

For the next month while my kids are extending their branches I will be playing with my adult friends. Lately a few of us have formed a regular team and been playing coop games including Fuse and Borderlands 1 and 2. It is infinitely a more enjoyable experience to play in party of regulars than to jump into a public match. My sister and her daughter are part of this team. They have their own transition occurring now as her daughter graduates high school this weekend and looks forward to college life. And I thought a month without my boys was a change.

Rape Jokes, Sexism, Parenting and Gaming

I was alerted to an article by Rebecca Greenfield in The Atlantic Wire entitled “The Rape ‘Joke’ at Microsoft’s E3 Reveal Is a Bigger Deal Than Another Bad ‘Joke’” which alleges that:

“… a Microsoft presenter slipped an apparent rape reference into a Monday presentation at Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, the biggest video-game conference of the year. During a demo of Killer Instinct to drum up excitement for its new Xbox One, Microsoft brought out a man and a woman to battle it out on the big screen onstage in Los Angeles. In this scripted event the man, of course, kicks the woman’s ass at the fighting game. “I can’t even block correctly and you’re too fast,” she says, playing a video game like a girl. But even more problematic than those stereotypical gender roles was the part when her adversary said this: “Just let it happen. It will be over soon.” You know, like a rape: The audience chuckled. “Wow, you like this,” the man continues, as he beats the virtual woman. And the woman, much like someone being sexually assaulted, replies: “No, I don’t like this.”

The sentiment was echoed by Chenda Ngak at CBS in “E3 audience offended by “rape joke” at Microsoft Xbox One event“. While it is true that as Greenfield puts it, “Perhaps more than any segment of the technology industry, gamer culture has had its fair share of sexism problems…,” I am getting mixed reactions as to where this incident lands on that spectrum. The non-gamers I have shown this to report seeing at least the sexual innuendo – and were somewhat rocked by the “just let it happen” comment. But if you read the comments in reaction to the CBS piece, you will see that many readers do not seem to think this was a rape reference or even sexist. The one thing that is undoubtedly true: the players in this demo were not evenly matched – the man was one of the producers of the game, clearly more skilled at the fighting techniques and using a special controller and the woman was a Microsoft presenter with a standard controller and a totally different charge – to help highlight the extended features of the game. Let me know where you come out on this. Please cast your vote after watching the video.

But the overarching point is not lost. Traditionally, female characters wear skimpy clothing and feature exaggerated body parts to make them more alluring. In the past the industry put emphasis on strong male characters who were almost always the stars of the game. But I think it does the entire gaming world a huge disservice to pretend that things have not changed and that the rampant sexism of the past is present in most games today.

Yes, female characters still feature exaggerated bodies and often wear sexy outfits, but the male characters are equally exaggerated and unrealistic, representing a non-existent super male. Let’s face it, at least some gaming is about fantasy and stepping out of your life into a more exciting role for a time sells. No question, this was a male-dominated market at first, but the number of female gamers has increased steadily and now account for nearly half of the total market. Wikipedia has interesting further detail under the topic Women and video games.

Of course there are limits, and good taste and social responsibility dictate these, and today most of the huge game developers take great care in where they draw the lines. I applaud Bioware, for instance, for enabling players to create Mass Effect’s main character as a male or female and allowing the user to determine (for the most part) the character’s body type and style. Many games feature equally balanced male and female characters like the Borderlands games for example or the new Fuse, but these limit the customization available to varying degrees.

In any case, the look of the characters is only part of the equation, what happens to them conveys the most important message and there are plenty of games today that seem to seek a balanced approach and not send the messages that so many find offensive. Careful game selection is critical. This is especially true when you are a parent of young gamers. As a father of three young boys, all of whom play a wide variety of games, I make it a point to research each game and in many cases play the games with them. I often choose to play female characters part of the time which my sons don’t understand. As they are a still too young to have real interest in girls, their unanimous preference is to play only as male characters.

But only part of the gaming experience is controlled by the developers. The online community plays a huge role in shaping the experience. Much like the variety of people who make up the game companies, the online gaming community includes all sorts of people with varied degrees of education, experience and enlightenment. One does not need to look very far to find racism, homophobia and sexism. Unfortunately, these are the realities of our society and their presence in the gaming communities only shows how accurately the gaming world reflects today’s different cultures, in the United States and abroad.

The importance of sending the correct message about healthy relationships and how to treat all human beings does not come from video games, it comes from parents. What you say and how you react to things that your children see and hear while playing video games, or watching television or films greatly affects how they process that information.

You may question – why am I talking about this on Father’s Day? Because the day is not just about giving gifts to dad. As fathers, the greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to have and sustain healthy, mature relationships, built on respect and trust. I firmly believe that talking about the problem and educating about healthy relationships can reduce the violence and protect our children.

NO MORE_STACK_RGBYet, new data from a NO MORE survey (sponsored by the Avon Foundation for Women) shows that these conversations are not happening. Three out of 4 men in this country say they have NOT talked about domestic violence or sexual assault with their children. That is why I am supporting a new effort, called NO MORE, to break through the silence surrounding these problems and get men talking about the issue.

I recognize that starting this conversation is extremely difficult; knowing what to say may be even harder. That is why there are resources you can use to make the conversation meaningful. These include information from Loveisrespect.org, Futures Without Violence and Break the Cycle. Get resources on talking to sons about healthy masculinity from Men Can Stop Rape and A CALL TO MEN. You can learn more about these organizations and many others at www.nomore.org.

This Father’s Day, decide to make teaching your children about healthy relationships part of your mission as a father. Remind yourself that this is what it looks like to end domestic violence and sexual assault. It looks like everyday people, standing up and saying NO MORE. Join me, and teach your sons and daughters to do the same.

Please also see my earlier post about NO MORE and view the public service announcement.

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